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James T. KeaneJanuary 30, 2024
Leonardo Boff (Brasil TV/Wikimedia Commons)

Reflecting on more than 80 years of life in his 2022 book Thoughts and Dreams of an Old Theologian, Leonardo Boff summed up many of his theological and personal concerns in a clarion call for change. “Either we care for Mother Earth, our Common Home, and we join hands to work together in solidarity, or we join the procession of those headed for their own funeral. Here we see the importance and the urgency of nurturing good dreams that lead us to transformational activities and constantly nourish our hope,” he wrote, adding:

This is the dream I want to pass on, as my life nears toward its end, to the young people who will come after us. It is their task to take forward the dream of Jesus, of Pope Francis, of liberation theology at its broadest, and of so many others who also nurture dreams of a better humanity. These young people will have to be the leaders in shaping a better future for us, for nature, and for Mother Earth.

If those dreams and concerns sound somewhat familiar, even to a reader unfamiliar with Boff’s work, it is because many of them were also reflected in recent Vatican documents like “Laudato Si’” and “Querida Amazonia.” After the publication of the former, rumors circulated that Pope Francis had personally asked Boff for his input on the writing of the encyclical.

Leonardo Boff, the pope’s theologian?

After the publication of "Laudato Si'," rumors circulated that Pope Francis had personally asked Leonardo Boff for his input on the writing of the encyclical.

It was not always thus. In a long and still-ongoing career, Boff was for many years one of the leading voices of liberation theology—and became a lightning rod for criticism of that theological school in the 1980s and 1990s.

Born in Concórdia, Brazil, in 1938, Boff entered the Franciscans in 1959 and was ordained in 1964. He earned a doctorate in philosophy and theology from the University of Munich in 1970. In the years that followed, Boff joined scholars such as Gustavo Gutiérrez, Jon Sobrino, S.J., and Juan Luis Segundo, S.J., in promoting the theology of liberation through books like Jesus Christ Liberator (1974). He was a strong proponent of comunidades de base, the small and local “base communities” which were championed by liberation theologians as centers of theological praxis in the face of economic injustice and structural sin. His 1987 book, Introducing Liberation Theology, co-written with his brother Clodovis, is still widely used in colleges and theological schools as a textbook.

In 1985, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (now the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith) censured Boff for his book Church: Charism and Power and silenced him for a year. The C.D.F., then led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, criticized Boff’s “ecclesiological relativism” in seeing both Protestant and Catholic church structures as incomplete, and also cited his praxis-based approach to theology (centered on the base communities) that, the C.D.F. argued, seemed to relativize the nature of truth.

In a 1988 book on the matter, The Silencing of Leonardo Boff: The Vatican and the Future of World Christianity, the theologian Harvey Cox suggested that the Vatican singled out Boff because it saw the “grass-roots religious energy” Boff represented as a threat to the church’s teaching authority.

Cox, wrote the theologian Lamin Sanneh in America in 1988, placed Boff’s silencing “in the global context of world Christianity, in particular the potential scale of the fallout from the growing challenge of third-world Christianity to the accustomed privileges of Western religious hegemony.”

Harvey Cox suggested that the Vatican singled out Boff because it saw the “grass-roots religious energy” Boff represented as a threat to the church’s teaching authority.

Cox saw Boff as “an evangelical radical, not a modernist” who did not want to bring the church up to date, necessarily, but to align it more closely with the Gospels, wrote America editor in chief George W. Hunt, S.J., in 1989. Cardinal Ratzinger, Hunt wrote, sought to recenter the church “intellectually and liturgically in its ancient homeland (Europe), and to achieve this his congregation must be ‘the protector not only of the integrity of the faith and the documents of Vatican II but also of their proper interpretation against cagey [non-European] theologians.’” Boff, on the other hand, found the solution to what ailed the church “not in ‘recentering’ but in ‘decentering,’ that is, a form of Catholicism ‘in which the Gospel can take root in a variety of disparate cultures and flourish especially among the poor.’”

Boff continued to write and teach (he was a professor of theology at the Jesuit Institute for Philosophy and Theology in Petropolis, Brazil, for 22 years) after his silencing ended, publishing such books as Ecclesiogenesis and Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor. In 1992, Boff faced a potential silencing once again from the C.D.F. Recognizing that his status as a priest under obedience in a religious order was an issue in the C.D.F.’s repeated efforts to discipline him, he resigned from the Franciscans that June. The next year, he took a position at Rio de Janeiro State University in Brazil, where he is now the Professor Emeritus of Ethics, Philosophy of Religion and Ecology.

In 2000, Cardinal Ratzinger reflected on the contretemps in a speech at the Vatican that suggested Boff’s silencing stood as a warning to other theologians. “At a distance of 15 years, it is clearer than it perhaps was then that it was not so much a matter of a single theological author, but of a vision of the church which circulates with different variations and which is still very current today,” Ratzinger said. Boff was one of many theologians censured by the C.D.F. during the pontificate of John Paul II, a process America’s editors criticized in a 2001 editorial, “Due Process in the Church.”

In recent years, in addition to Thoughts and Dreams of an Old Theologian, Boff has also published such books as Christianity in a Nutshell, Come Holy Spirit and The Following of Jesus. His theological work has increasingly focused on the ecological crisis facing the world.

“Boff’s skillful use of the sociology of knowledge enables him to explain why theologians of other ages interpreted the faith within the total social, cultural, political and economic realities of their day,” wrote Joseph P. Fitzpatrick, S.J., in America in 1990. “It also prompts him to declare why the perspective of liberation theology is the only authentic interpretation of the faith in the presence of the massive inhumanity, oppression and injustice of our day.”

Boff’s primary concern theologically and sociologically has always been the poor and marginalized, particularly in Latin America. But that might not be the audience needs to hear him the most. “The Christian slum-dweller in Lima or Sao Paulo does not need a Gustavo Gutiérrez or à Leonardo Boff in order to know that something is terribly wrong and has to change, or that the Gospel has plenty to say about the nature of that change,” wrote Kevin P. O’Higgins, S.J., in a 1990 essay for America.

“It is the comfortable Christian suburbanite—clerical, religious or lay—in North America or Western Europe who has [the] most difficulty in seeing what is wrong and what is demanded by an authentic faith.”

Boff's 1987 book, Introducing Liberation Theology, co-written with his brother Clodovis, is still widely used in colleges and theological schools as a textbook.

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Turning Seventy-Five,” by Jerome Miller. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, big news from the Catholic Book Club: We are reading Come Forth: The Promise of Jesus’s Greatest Miracle, by James Martin, S.J. Click here to watch a livestream with Father Martin about the book or here to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

What’s all the fuss about Teilhard de Chardin?

Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review

Who’s in hell? Hans Urs von Balthasar had thoughts.

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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